Issues

U.S. Lawmakers Have Reduced Security Assistance to Central America

Restrictions fueling current immigration problems at U.S. border

A temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors who have entered the country illegally is seen at Lackland Air Force Base
A temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors who have entered the country illegally is seen at Lackland Air Force Base / AP

U.S. lawmakers have reduced security assistance to Central American countries that have become increasingly violent in recent months, in part fueling the current immigration problems at the U.S. border, experts and military commanders say.

Nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors have illegally crossed the U.S. border this year—many fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, countries known as the "Northern Triangle."

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and is the fastest growing source country for unlawful U.S. immigrants. El Salvador and Guatemala have the fourth and fifth highest homicide rates, according to a United Nations report.

However, lawmakers have recently placed more restrictions on U.S. security aid to Guatemala and Honduras under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programs.

For example, Congress raised the withholding requirement for assistance to the Honduran military and police from 20 percent to 35 percent in the 2014 appropriations law. Lawmakers can restrict that aid if they determine that Honduran forces are not respecting human rights and the rule of law.

Ana Quintana, a Latin America research associate at the Heritage Foundation, said that Congress’ concerns about forces in countries such as Honduras and Guatemala often seem counterintuitive.

"We should definitely ensure human rights are protected, but we are expecting the impossible from the Guatemalan military," she said as an example. "We have 20 percent restrictions against IMET funding for Guatemala."

"IMET is the best program for ensuring that their military is trained with human rights considerations and democratic values," she added. "There doesn’t seem to be any logic to [the restrictions]."

Lawmakers have also reportedly blocked Honduras from repairing its fleet of F-5 jet fighters—originally provided by the United States in the 1980s—and suspended joint initiatives such as Operation Anvil, an aerial drug interdiction program. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about a Honduran law that permits the shooting down of drug planes.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, has spearheaded efforts to restrict U.S. aid and training to foreign militaries and police forces that have allegedly committed human rights violations.

Leahy spokesman David Carle defended the conditioning of aid based on the "Leahy Laws."

"Senator Leahy and the subcommittee he chairs have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Honduran military and police over many years, and unfortunately the military and police there are as corrupt and unaccountable as they were before," Carle said in an email. "As an accountability step Senator Leahy is holding back a small portion of the aid, due to the Honduran Government’s continuing failure to address several key issues that he and the State Department have pressed them to address."

However, Quintana said the implementation of the Leahy Laws in Central America is often difficult and can result in delayed investigations. Security forces can suffer as a result.

"Any sort of progress we’ve made could be completely set back," she said. "We go one step forward and three steps back."

Additionally, defense budget cuts under sequestration have hampered joint U.S. military efforts with countries in Latin America—the lowest priority command region for the military. Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, told congressional committees earlier this year that he only has about 5 percent of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets needed to adequately monitor drug and arms trafficking and human smuggling in the region.

More cocaine, heroin, and meth have flowed into the United States as a result. The illicit drug trade provides about $85 billion in profits to transnational criminal groups and gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in El Salvador and Mexican drug cartels.

The drug trade contributes to thousands of annual U.S. deaths and enables the criminal groups to buy off police forces and governments in Central America, Kelly said in a recent op-ed for Military Times.

President Barack Obama has requested $3.7 billion in additional funding from Congress to stem the recent surge in illegal immigration, including $295 million in assistance for Central American governments.

Quintana said the Obama administration and lawmakers should focus more on long-term assistance for military cooperation and civil society development rather than just short-term emergency packages after crises emerge.

She noted that the joint anti-drug initiative between the U.S. and Colombia, known as "Plan Colombia," successfully reduced cocaine production and violence in the country and granted it space to develop institutions. Colombia can now serve as a model for the region and train other countries’ police forces and militaries.

"These are systemic issues that can not be dealt with by quick civil society programs," Quintana said. "This requires long-term engagement."

"Do we have the political will to stick it out in the long run like we did in Colombia?" she asked.